Sunday, April 29, 2018


Release date:
April 27, 2018
Ravi Jadhav

Kalyanee Mulay, Chhaya Kadam, Om Bhutkar, Madan Deodhar, Kishor Kadam, Naseeruddin Shah

Nude did not make as much news as S Durga nee Sexy Durga did when the I&B Ministry barred both from the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) last year. That is because S Durga’s director Sanal Kumar Sashidharan made his displeasure public, challenged the decision in court and waged a high-profile battle with the establishment. Marathi director Ravi Jadhav and his producers chose a quieter, perhaps safer, path than their fiery counterpart from the Malayalam film industry.

Fortunately for cinephiles, their differing approaches to countering censorship have got the same result in each case: a month after S. Durga’s theatrical release, Nude too is here.

Nude (Chitraa) is the story of a poor woman who comes to Mumbai with her son to escape an abusive, adulterous husband in her hometown.

After struggling to find work in the big city, Yamuna lands a job as a nude model for art students at the prestigious Sir J J School of Art. The film is based on a true story but the identities of the actual individuals involved have been kept secret, as a written statement from Jadhav on screen testifies at the start, “in keeping with our commitment to the school’s protocol and related sensitivities”.

On the face of it, Nude is about Yamuna’s struggles against poverty, patriarchy and conservatism. At a macro level though, it examines the failure of social and political fundamentalists to understand art, and their conscienceless denunciation of the very works they consume with a lustful gaze.

Like sanctimonious men who masturbate to lovemaking scenes on screen, but condemn the actors they are watching as whores, Nude’s villains are all around us in real life. This film is a hard-hitting exposé of the fake piety of such conservatives.

Despite the wistful tone, there is a lot about Nude that is positive and life-affirming, with even a flash of humour emerging unexpectedly while Yamuna settles into her new profession. Jadhav has shown extreme sensitivity in the way he portrays his heroine’s initial shame at the job and how she overcomes that feeling. The bond she shares with Chandrakka, the woman who introduces her to nude modelling, is heartwarming.

Although Yamuna’s decision at the end of Nude does not flow convincingly from her journey until then, so much else in the film is credible and inspiring. The high point of Nude for me is a scene in Yamuna and Chandrakka’s hovel right after Yamuna gets her first payment, when we see a transformation in her body language, a melting away of the fearful youngster who had entered the massive metropolis not long back, and a shift in the very air around her. Yamuna at that moment embodies the confidence that comes from financial independence – it is a marvellous thing to behold.

Considering the sophistication of the rest of the film, a crucial scene involving placard-bearing protestors is written and directed with surprising awkwardness. I also could not help but wonder if Jadhav was not taking too uncritical a view of the artist community by not even mentioning the possibility of sexual violence against women like Yamuna.

The care with which she chooses people to pose for came across more as a general observation about the safety of women in society and not a specific reference to those in Yamuna’s situation. It would have helped to throw light on a question as obvious as this.

DoP Amalendu Chaudhary shoots the painting scenes in Nude so delicately that voyeurs looking for flesh-and-blood bottoms and breasts to peruse will be deeply disappointed. If in an early scene running alongside the opening credits, the camera does appear to objectify Yamuna – the only time it does so in Nude – it is to make a point, as you will realise if you heed the lyrics of the soulful song Dis yeti playing alongside in Cyli Khare’s ruggedly attractive voice. “Tell me, oh dear,” she sings as the lens travels over Yamuna’s drenched body encased in a wet sari, “where all will your gaze trail?”

Although the cinematography in Nude is rarely lavish (a choice well suited to the kind of film this is), a mention must be made of a visually noteworthy scene featuring Yamuna on a beach. In closer shots, as the ocean rages before her and a gusty wind blows, those mighty waters look intimidatingly real. The camera keeps pulling out though to long shots in which she and her companion appear like figures in a watercolour painting.

The story of Nude (written by Jadhav) derives its strength and substance from Yamuna and Chandrakka. Chhaya Kadam is a powerful actor and paints Chandrakka as a feisty creature of immense mental muscle. Kalyanee Mulay faithfully captures Yamuna’s passage from misery to upliftment and pain again, not wilting once as the camera stays on her expressive face and body almost from the first shot. Naseeruddin Shah makes a small but memorable appearance as the renowned barefoot painter with a Picasso-esque style, Mallik Sahab, no doubt an ode to the late M.F. Husain.

This of course brings us to why the I&B Ministry objected to Nude being screened at IFFI 2017. The reasons reported included that the film was not yet cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and that the title was deemed objectionable. The reason assumed by many liberals was that the title hinting at the possibility of naked people in a film was deemed offensive to India’s culture police. Once you watch Nude you will know that it does not feature a single shot in which we actually see an actor’s unclothed body in its entirety. What we do see though is a Muslim painter hounded by violent political goons so reminiscent of religious extremists who harassed Husain for his goddess paintings. Draw your own conclusions now for whether and why the present ruling party would have a bone to pick with Nude.

As we now know, better sense has prevailed and the film was cleared with no cuts and an A (adults only) rating from the CBFC. While these are small mercies in the present dismal scenario we find ourselves in, the truth is it is ludicrous that such a thoughtful feminist film has been given the strictest available rating, while ugly commercial ventures glorifying violence against women get away with a mild UA (unrestricted public exhibition subject to parental guidance for children below 12) and even U (unrestricted). This is a crying shame, because Nude is excellent material for children especially for the turn Yamuna’s relationship with her son takes. 

Nude’s journey to theatres then mirrors the very societal double standards it explores. This is a lyrical film about human beings and the arts struggling to survive in a hypocritical world.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
112 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Saturday, April 28, 2018


Release date:
April 27, 2018
Girish Damodar

Mammootty, Karthika Muralidharan, Joy Mathew, Muthumani, Kailash, Ganapathi, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Suresh Krishna   

In so many respects, the conception, writing and execution of Uncle: My Dad’s Friend is brilliant. Director Girish Damodar’s film is startlingly honest in the way it grabs men in the audience by the collar and demands that they introspect about their hypocritical attitude towards women – protective of and fearful for the safety of the ones they love; casually disrespectful and lascivious, if not contemptuous towards the rest.

Joy Mathew’s writing is brutally frank in its assessment of ugly notions of masculinity that pervade our society and nurture these double standards. Considering that misogyny is intrinsic to so many contemporary mainstream Malayalam films, especially those headlined by Uncle’s star, this is a refreshing surprise.

Uncle stumbles repeatedly though by strewing bizarre red herrings around to cause us to make certain assumptions about Krishnakumar, the story’s Uncle played by Mammootty.

In the opening shots, as the credits roll, a violent mob vandalises property in a picturesque hill town. Soon, we see Shruthi (Karthika Muralidharan) standing on the street with a backpack. She is waiting for transport, perhaps a bus, and we can sense her unease when men sidle up to her with questions.

Already the air is thick with foreboding. Already as an audience member, I am worried for her. As a woman, I am doubly distressed, because I have been there a zillion times. The manner in which Damodar conjures up these feelings in just seconds is remarkable.

A car stops. The heart stops. But no, this time it is not a creepy stranger, it is Shruthi’s Dad’s buddy. Krishnakumar Uncle offers to drop her from Ooty where they are to her home in Kozhikode. And so the film’s journey begins.

Most of Uncle’s running time is spent cutting between Shruthi and Krishnakumar’s road trip through mountainous forest terrain on the one hand, and on the other hand, her parents back home. The mother (Muthumani) feels reassured of her girl’s safety since she knows KK to be her husband’s friend. Yet the husband Vijayan (Joy Mathew himself) appears inexplicably troubled by the news of the company his daughter finds herself in.

We soon figure out why. When the film dwells on him, it also repeatedly cuts to a group of men somewhere nearby, drinking, discussing women loosely, speculating in crude terms about the woman KK is with at that moment.

They are a disgusting lot and those early scenes are designed to other them, giving women viewers a sense of comfort in the conviction that they are not the kind of men we would spend time with – not my husband, my father, my boyfriend, my brother, my pal, not any man I love. Or are they?

(Spoilers ahead)

The mind freezes over when the narrative switches to a flashback and the painful awareness dawns that these are, in fact, men who move among us. Shameer Muhammed’s editing of this portion is so unfussy, the shift so discreetly done, that we do not detect it until we spot Vijayan and Krishnakumar on screen in that same repulsive gang, and Vijayan – gentleman, gentle husband, Shruthi’s darling Daddy – is the one using the most vulgar language to describe KK’s sexual partners, as the men all appear to live vicariously through their bachelor friend’s promiscuous ways and his particular talent for hooking much younger women.

These passages are unnerving because of their everydayness. These men are not killing or raping women, they are not indulging in any form of physical violence, yet their lightly spoken words – reminiscent of the sexist, casteist sport in Sanal Kumar Sashidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game) – mirror the visceral hate harboured by men who do. And they are people like us. They are our husband, father, boyfriend, brother, pal. They are the men we love.

Vijayan cannot tell his wife or child why he distrusts KK, because it will mean revealing a side of himself he has hidden from these women whose love and respect he values.

(Spoiler alert ends)

When it is with Shruthi’s parents and her father’s gang, and in the horrifying realness of a crowd scene later on, Uncle is an extraordinary film. The quality dips when it is on the road with Shruthi and KK though, because that is when we get transparent efforts, too clever by half, to heighten the suspense around their fate.

Shruthi’s achingly youthful innocence, the reactions of people they encounter, Vijayan’s unspoken fears and the audience’s own preconceptions are enough to underline the issues Uncle obviously wishes to highlight: social biases towards single people, the conjectures made about any man and woman seen together unless they are married, and more.

Mammootty’s track record of incessantly romancing female actors young enough to be his daughters and granddaughters in film after film since the 1990s, contributes too to the red flag that goes up as soon as we realise that the Krishnakumar Uncle who stops to give Shruthi a lift is played by him. In that sense, he is an on-point casting choice. Nothing more was required to keep the audience on tenterhooks on her behalf.

Yet in KK’s presence, Uncle tries to be more of a thriller than it needs to be. In its bid to build up our (the audience’s) suspicions of KK, it has him indulging in inappropriate behaviour which it ends up normalising when the denouement guilts us for reacting negatively to him in these parts.

The writing and Mammootty’s acting are both intentionally misleading here. In shots dotting their drive together, we catch KK looking oddly at Shruthi, who is still a minor. He has a decidedly lackadaisical attitude towards the security of this child in his charge, which results in them being out late at night despite her parents’ expressed misgivings and in unsafe places without her parents’ explicit consent. We are also acutely aware of his tendency to invade her personal space when there is no need to do so, such as when he insists on reaching across and buckling her seatbelt for her in spite of her protestations.

Any discomfort audience members may feel towards him here is natural and acceptable. It makes no sense to equate that response with the other condemnable prejudices he faces.

It is hard to understand why Messrs Damodar and Mathew would spoil their film by getting this crucial element so wrong, when they get so much else right in Uncle.

DoP Alagappan N. uses spectacular aerial shots to emphasise the remoteness of the locations where Shruthi finds herself with KK, while at one point he resorts to a distorted close-up of their vehicle’s interior and elsewhere to a fish-eye view of the outside. His camerawork, the understated sound design and Bijibal’s background score are crucial to the ominous air that blankets the film throughout. Even the unnecessary full-length song with Shruthi dancing in the woods fails to kill the mood, though it does act as an irritating distraction. The number in Mammootty’s voice though (the old Entha Johnsa Kallille revived), is well slotted and lots of fun.

All the artistes other than Mammootty are exceptional. Young Karthika Muralidharan perfectly conveys guilelessness without consciously trying to be cute, with a confidence undented by the presence of her veteran superstar colleague. Mathew, who has one of the film’s most challenging roles, strikes a flawless balance between Vijayan’s good and awful side. And Muthumani is outstanding in the climax.

In that scene and in the one preceding it, Mammootty metamorphoses into the actor that cinephiles have reason to adore. Shrugging off his trademark swagger, with the screenplay no longer requiring him to pretend to be anything other than what KK is, he gives us a slight droop of the shoulder and a fleeting pain in his eyes that remind us of why he is an acting legend. That we do not see more of that artiste on screen these days is one of the saddest realities of our time.

When it is at its best, Uncle: My Dad’s Friend is an excellent psychological drama bordering on a work of genius. By making needless overt attempts to manipulate the audience though, it robs itself of its potential greatness.

Rating (out of five stars): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
145 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: